From convict to respected surgeon

Life’s pursuit: For Bradbury resident Arthur Jones, spending hundreds of hours in Sydney’s Mitchell Library scouring documents to piece together Dr William Redfern’s story has been a labour of love. He has written two books on the surgeon who came to Australia a convict and was one of the colony’s most respected doctors. Picture: Simon Bennett
Life’s pursuit: For Bradbury resident Arthur Jones, spending hundreds of hours in Sydney’s Mitchell Library scouring documents to piece together Dr William Redfern’s story has been a labour of love. He has written two books on the surgeon who came to Australia a convict and was one of the colony’s most respected doctors. Picture: Simon Bennett

The future of recently sold historic home Campbellfield (also known as Redfern’s Cottage) has yet to be revealed. Reporter Katherine Fenech spoke to historian Arthur Jones, who has dedicated more than 50 years to researching the cottage’s original owner Dr William Redfern.

William Redfern’s story is the stuff Hollywood blockbusters are made of.

He was a surgeon, a convicted mutineer, was sentenced to death and shipped to Australia where he was eventually pardoned and put in charge of the convict hospital.

It was a story that compelled Bradbury resident Arthur Jones to begin painstaking research in the 1960s while he was principal of Minto Public School.

More than 50 years later he is still fascinated by Dr Redfern’s life and achievements and has two as-yet-unpublished books on the surgeon’s life.

While his exact birthdate and country are unclear, William Redfern’s Royal Navy sign up sheet states he was born in Canada in 1775.

He was brought up in Ireland and England and joined the Royal Navy aged 22 in 1797 as a surgeon’s mate.

‘‘Governor [Lachlan] Macquarie said he was one of the best educated men that he’d come across,’’ Mr Jones said.

‘‘You’d usually pass an examination to become a surgeon and that’s what

Redfern did. We knew he had a broad education in medicine because he was the surgeon’s mate.’’

Dr Redfern’s navy career was extremely short lived and ill-fated. After just five months he was discharged from the HMS Standard and court-martialled for his role in a mutiny at The Nore.

Minto's historic Campbellfield, originally owned by convict doctor William Redfern, has been sold but its future is uncertain. Picture: JA White

Minto's historic Campbellfield, originally owned by convict doctor William Redfern, has been sold but its future is uncertain. Picture: JA White

The HMS Standard crew were part of whole fleets of ships that mutinied in 1797 demanding increased pay, better treatment from their superiors, improved rations and leave entitlements.

It was a year of unrest for the Royal Navy, with an earlier mutiny at Spithead, near Portsmouth, had been resolved and all sailors had the mutiny expunged from their records.

‘‘When a navy-appointed retired Admiral found that 50 officers, including an Admiral, were not being nice people, it’s easy to see that bad behaviour went right through the navy,’’ Mr Jones said.

The Nore mutiny, inspired by Spithead, was handled much differently and when each ship surrendered, including Dr Redfern’s HMS Standard, 560 men were imprisoned as activists or delegates.

Mr Jones said 412 men were held for trial and 59 sentenced to death. Of those, 26 men were hanged.

When mutineers sacked the ship’s surgeon, Dr Redfern had taken his place, and a letter found after his arrest appeared to be written to his fellow seamen, justifying their mutinous actions.

Dr Redfern was sentenced to be hung with the possibility of being ‘‘thrown onto the King’s mercy’’, Mr Jones said, but he was instead sent to perform hard labour.

He spent three years living on a prison ship, known as a hulk, before he was sent to Australia.

‘‘Because some ships came to Australia with dead and dieing convicts on them, a lot of complaints were coming from governors about the conditions in which they arrived,’’ he said.

Sarah Redfern: William's young wife, from a portrait at the Minto school named in her honour.

Sarah Redfern: William's young wife, from a portrait at the Minto school named in her honour.

Dr Redfern was one of the convicts to travel in three purpose-built ships and helped care for his shipmates during the voyage.

‘‘He wasn’t rewarded immediately for his trouble, but was sent straight to Norfolk Island,’’ he said.

‘‘Norfolk Island’s surgeon went off on a ship and the weather conditions were such that he couldn’t get back.

Eventually he tried to return and was drowned so Redfern was immediately put in charge of the hospital and because he did so well he was recommended to be given a conditional pardon.’’

Dr Redfern purchased land on Norfolk Island in 1803, where he farmed grains and had pigs, as well as working as a doctor.

He fell out with the island’s military officer John Piper and was to be sent to Hobart, but used his connections to instead move to Sydney in 1808.

Having been put in charge of Sydney Hospital, a year later he treated the daughter of John Macarthur.

At the hospital he held a clinic for convicts, had the right to work in private practice, and Mr Jones said he was the first known trained obstetrician in the country.

He married Sarah Wills in 1811, who had come to Australia as a young girl with her mother and convict father.

She was just 14-years-old when they married, with the permission of her parents.

That same year Redfern was granted land from Minto to Macquarie Fields, called Campbellfield in honour of Elizabeth Macquarie (nee Campbell), and built a cottage where they had two sons, William Lachlan Macquarie and Joseph Foveaux.

In 1828 Dr Redfern travelled to Edinburgh to study medicine and to have his son William educated.

Five years later Dr Redfern died and was buried in Edinburgh. His wife Sarah remarried and ensured her surviving son ‘Mac’ studied at a university in Glasgow.

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